If you’re a man who can stand upright without anything hurting, you’ve got as good a shot as anyone to win the 2017 U.S. Open. Gone are the elites usually clotting the late rounds of majors. Of the top 11 players in men’s tennis, five of them are too hurt to play: No. 11 Milos Raonic, No. 10 Kei Nishikori, No. 5 Novak Djokovic, No. 4 Stan Wawrinka, and, as of this weekend, No. 2 Andy Murray. This last revelation came very late, and not without some consternation from viewers. Murray, the two seed, withdrew with a hip injury on Saturday in an borderline-teary press conference.
Here’s what why that pissed off lots of fans: Had Murray withdrawn earlier, this would have allowed Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two greatest and by far best two players standing, to sit on opposite sides of the draw, leaving open the possibility that they could meet in the final—they’ve never played each other in New York—and deliver a conclusion to a preposterously rich year of fan service. Instead, Murray stuck around, gauging his health until the last possible moment before ducking out, and by procedure, his vacated spot was filled by the five seed, leaving Federer and Nadal stuck in the same half. Given how gingerly Murray was walking around the court when I saw him practicing at low gear on Thursday, he must have been ridiculously optimistic. But Murray, who said he’s been hurt since losing at the French Open to Stan Wawrinka, who nobly dragged his corpse around the grass at Wimbledon, could never, ever be accused of not pushing himself hard enough. Now he’s out, possibly for the rest of the season—may he get well and find a way to extend his career.
He leaves behind a soft field besides the two GOATs. I marveled at the Australian Open when, beating all reasonable expectation, they met in the final. I called the French Open for Rafael Nadal when it looked like a foregone conclusion. I similarly gave Federer his Wimbledon. Now who gets this one? Before, there was a perfect, hilarious binary to Federer’s season—after entering a given tournament, he either won the whole thing or lost to a player ranked outside the top 100—but he finally broke that streak by losing in the final at Montreal. There’d be a different aesthetic satisfaction if Nadal took this the U.S. Open, a clean split of the 2017 haul: You get the first hardcourt major, then I get my favorite surface, then you get your favorite surface, then I get the last hardcourt major. Ultimately, these are just stupid patterns, and the game is more than ready to welcome a first-time major winner, unseen in three years, since Marin Cilic won the 2014 title in New York.
Maybe it’s time for a little change of pace: some challenge to the old order, some fresh blood. It’s a good time to acquaint yourself with the best four young talents. There’s Grigor Dimitrov, who, if you squint just a little, is Federer-lite; and Dominic Thiem, who if you really, really squint, could be an enthusiastic cousin of Rafael Nadal. And then there are Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios, the two most significant talents on the come up, but the former hasn’t ever made a Grand Slam quarterfinal and the latter hasn’t done it since January 2015.
With all their usual apex predators laid up in rehab, Zverev and Kyrgios will have more freedom than ever to make those feats happen. Or all four of the above could lose early and we’ll get a Fedal semifinal, with the winner of that blowing out whatever unsuspecting schmo stumbles out of the other half of the draw, and claiming the title. This would not make for a compelling final, and yet there’s something refreshing about looking at those 64 hopefuls lined up across the bracket from Nadal and Federer without seeing any immediately obvious outcome pop out. In the year of the duopoly, maybe it’s still possible to feel a twinge of surprise.